Democracy – the Internet has changed everything

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 ‘One of the penalties for refusing to participate in politics is that you end up being governed by your inferiors.’  Plato

‘Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.’  Winston Churchill

I have written many thousands of words about democracy over the years and tried to explain its complexity – for it is not a concept that is as simple as it appears.  Generally speaking and at its most simplistic, the phrase ‘one man one vote’ is thought to sum up the essence of the word but over many millennia it has been recognised that there are many forms of democracy and merely having a vote does not give any individual ‘power’ either in the decisions made by those elected or over other citizens.  A vote for an individual in an election is a very long way from the decision-making process

Throughout this I use the word ‘politicians’ (whether professionals or volunteers) to cover not just those in national government but also those in even small organisations from breed clubs to the Kennel Club or, for that matter, intermediate institutions such as the National Trust or the major charities.  In the UK we vote for ‘politicians’ in national and local government or for committee members of our local interest groups (in the case of readers of  Our Dogs it will be within breed or general canine societies) but it will only be the ‘few’ who get to take the decisions – the ‘many’ just allow and then enable them to do so before, usually, a period of time.  In fact, it would be true to say that the bigger the group and therefore the more important the decision, the fewer people are involved in taking that decision.   In effect, the ‘many’ are often virtually disenfranchised as far as the impact of the decision is concerned.  This is especially true of both national and local government when very often, due to constituency boundaries, it is not always the group (whatever their political colour) given power which garnered the greatest number of votes.  This has been demonstrated many times in the UK (John Major had the greatest number of votes but was soundly defeated on a constituency basis in 1997) and more recently in the United States Presidential election, when although Barack Obama won with a significant proportion – almost two thirds of the electoral college votes, the national vote was much, much closer.

Back at the beginning

I should really begin this article 2000 years ago in ancient Greece (although the process was really begun by the Persians) where we can examine what the original concept of Western democracy meant: where the people (the ‘demos’) actually did the ruling and where anyone could make their views known in their Senate and have an impact on the decisions being taken.

This works under some circumstances and in small communities but the idea of democracy had to change to make larger societies function smoothly.  To this end and over a long period of time, the concept of ‘liberty’ was born.  Our modern, philosophic concept of liberty is relatively new and was first properly defined by French politician called Benjamin Constant in 1819 during a lecture that he called ‘The Liberty of the Ancients Compared with that of the Moderns’.  This was addressed to an audience who had lived through the French Revolution, the subsequent terror, the Napoleonic Empire and the restoration of the French monarchy so they had real experience of a wide variety of ‘power’.  Constant asked what sort of freedom modern people really valued.  He argued that ‘liberty’ meant, primarily, ‘freedom from coercion and interference’.  He said: ‘people want to be free from arbitrary imprisonment, free to speak their minds, free to choose their professions and associates’ and that this was different to that of the ancient Greeks and Romans where ‘freedom’ meant something much more positive ‘freedom to participate in government decisions, to make laws and declare war and judge criminals.’  He argued that this ancient liberty came at a price which those now living would find prohibitively high: ‘the complete subjection of the individuals to the authority of the group’.  For instance, in Sparta, people had to have the permission of the city to get married, to set up a business, to stay at home when others went to war and, in one documented instance, a musician had to have consent to add a new string to his lyre!

Circumstances alter cases – as do communities

Such an approach to government would clearly be impossible in the modern world and in any case would not be practical for those who were members of that society had an impact on everything from lawmaking, the choice of military leaders to judging criminal cases as they came to court: in fact anything that impacted on the lives of their fellow citizens.  This left little time for them to create the wherewithal to eat and live in comfort: the Greeks solved this problem by creating a group of people whose rights were not relevant to the body politic – they called them slaves!

Clearly such a society, though seen as the birthplace of democracy and even though a proportion of the population was ‘free’, was both undesirable and unjust. Constant wrote: ‘The aim of the ancients was to share power among the citizens of a single country – that is what they called “liberty”.  The aim of modern society is to be secure in their private benefits and “liberty” is their name for the guarantees accorded by institutions to those benefits’.  He concluded that true happiness requires combining ancient and modern liberties: the immunities of liberalism and the commitments of democracy.

Early societies were small and essentially tribal so could be governed by a ‘leader’ who was agreed by birth or by force, but gradually, as our society became more complex, the idea of elections came to the fore.  Elections place power in the hands of the ‘few’ the populace trusts to use that power to govern wisely and protect their ‘liberties’, very often through employed staff.  This process and development has taken many years and is, in fact, still evolving.

Several different frameworks have been attempted.  In the UK we are used to the idea that we elected every few years people who are responsible for helping frame laws, by laws and regulations (or opposing them if they are in opposition) and to whom we can turn when we feel the state is not being fair to us.  Some Members of Parliament and local councillors are more effective than others but most do their best for their constituents.  At national level we also have a revising chamber (the House of Lords) which is a group of, in theory, independently appointed members from amongst those who are considered worthy to review legislation (and in some instances initiate legislation) which provides a moderating influence on any extremes.

This is an unusual structure for, in most other democracies which have a second chamber, it is ‘elected’ rather than ‘selected’.  This is the case in the United States.

However, the US has a completely different method of selection for its leader, the President.  Voters elect members of the Senate and the House of Representatives directly but the President is elected via an Electoral College which could, in theory, elect a President who has not been selected by the majority – in a situation very like the John Major example in a previous paragraph. In the UK the Prime Minister, is elected by his or her party members and we as voters have no say.

Alternative political theories – some still in use!

In trying to solve these problems, political theorists at the turn of the last century suggested that small groups elect one of their number to represent them at a larger group (like a parish council selecting someone to represent them on the town council) and then that group selects one of their members to represent them for a larger area (such as a county Council) and that they elect from their members those to go onto the national governing body.  It sounds terrific in theory but as the process did not allow for the establishment of any opposition, the result was a cabal of the powerful – best exemplified by Communist states.  Interestingly the way in which people are elected to Kennel Club Councils uses this ‘democratic’ technique!

In most systems ‘checks and balances’ (and it is one of the failings of Communism that it does not allow checks and balances) have been put in place under pressure from communities to ensure that those they place in power are fully accountable.  These include requirements such as elections, the independence of the judiciary, annual general meetings, the presentation of financial information, declarations of interest and probably, most importantly, scrutiny by the ‘media’. This scrutiny has been hard won, for institutions, almost by definition, are resistant to change.  Recent examples which have had a significant effect on democratic behaviour and freedoms, (because inevitably each section of society tends to put its own ‘interest’ first) are the recent Leveson Enquiry into the press and the restructuring of the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority with more and extensive powers over the expenditure of parliamentarians.

These and many other changes have come about primarily because of the computerisation of records.  It has always been possible to track a ‘paper trail’ slowly and painstakingly but now that so much information is held in huge but easily searchable databases, it has become possible, if you know what you are looking for and have sufficient computer access, to quickly see patterns of misdemeanours (for some really good examples I suggest the books Freakonomics and Super Freakonomics).  In many ways this is all to the good:  but there is, as always, a consequence – a downside.

The power of the Internet is likely to change everything

In fact, we may have come full circle, for the power of the Internet is such that even large communities are now able to voice and spread their feelings and opinions (and their errors and prejudices too) like wildfire.  The word ‘wildfire’ indicates that something is out of control and this is becoming increasingly evident in the development of social networking sites such as Facebook.  And a recent conference held by the social networking site, MumsNet, was sold out: the programme was primarily about the social benefits of the Internet but also focused on the negatives such as cyber bullying.

However, the key issue that is that while the media is itself controlled by a relatively small group, it almost always reflects the interests of those that pay for it (the readers of the Telegraph and the Sun clearly have different interests).  But now large groups of people from any strata of society who have similar objectives can get together at virtually no cost and create a momentum which politicians are finding is difficult to resist.  This is the reason why in recent years the number of independent enquiries into various aspects of society have been set up because it is the simplest way for any government to find a route in which society is best served.  It is true that it ‘kicks the can down the road’ but nevertheless it does mean that some real research has to be taken into account before decisions are made.

This does not just apply to national and local government but to other organisations – including our Kennel Club: the enquiries currently being held into the questions of coat testing and registrations provide us with two excellent examples.  I find it interesting to note that these enquiries are going ahead despite regular calls for ‘a more open and democratic KC’ so one wonders whether greater ‘democracy’ could make any difference.

Despite that, I am hoping that another enquiry will be set up after the next Kennel Club AGM where I will be proposing a radical solution to improving relationships between the Kennel Club and those who feel that they are disenfranchised within the world of dogs.

Does democracy work?  As I hope I’ve explained – it all depends!   But at least in the 21st to Century those affected by the decisions of government at any level, have a better chance of putting forward alternatives to the status quo than ever before.  Yes, it is frustrating when the prejudices of minorities are given a disproportionate high profile but in the long run, although I know there are some who believe that the Internet is not a force for good, my opinion is that it is good for ‘democracy’ – however you define it.

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5 Comments on “Democracy – the Internet has changed everything”

  1. Stephen Clayforth Says:

    We cannot have any form of Democracy within the Kennel Club whilst it continues to disenfranchise the majority of its users. Ideally the Kennel Club should allow all participants of the KC events and/or all people who register their dogs with the KC to be members. I know this would be unwieldy as under the current rules all members are allowed to use the KC facilities and allowing ALL the dog fraternity to partake of the pleasures of Clarges Street is not feasible.

    However this could be circumvented by there being a separate section that, by payment of a fee, would allow these people to have the current KC members privileges. The remainder of the membership would be voting members only without these additional privileges.

    Because having such a large membership would be unwieldy when it came to election of the various committees of the KC I propose that this could be sorted by having regional committees or councils. These would be formed within certain proscribed areas based on the number of voting members within that area, rather than by geographic boundaries. Each discipline within the KC (Showing, Agility, Field trials etc) would have its own particular council area based on the numbers of members within that area within that discipline.

    The members within that area would then elect representatives who would form a regional council with the ability to license events within their regions and draft regulations for consideration by the general committee. The General Committee (or central ruling body) would be made up of representatives of the various regional councils and they would have the task of running the various disciplines, reviewing the rules and regulations of them and being the overriding authority.

    This, in my view, brings together the best of both types of democracy you have explained above,i.e. universal suffrage and nomination from defined groups. This would, again in my view, allow the general participants in the various elements of the KC to feel truly part of ‘Their Kennel Club’ as well as giving a voice to many, currently disenfranchised, participants in the KC.

    • David Cavill Says:

      PS – Should have mentioned that I have proposed this two tier membership solution many times (many,many times!) but it is not going anywhere. I might have more success with my new proposal

      Yours

      D


  2. One of the most important things that we, as thinking beings, can ask ourselves, is “What is the role of government in society?” But to answer it, we must first define government in a manner that satisfies all of us.


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